Sunday 22 September 2013

Don't kill Lulu

Men have been doing it since 1894, when Frank Wedekind first shocked the world with his Lulu play(s) about an amoral child-woman abused by men and doing what she can - which turns out not to be much - to get her own back. At least Wedekind had the half-decency to wonder whether (spoiler alert) Jack the Ripper should casually slaughter Lulu's lesbian admirer Countess Geschwitz on the way out of her garret; Geschwitz did survive in Christof Loy's mesmerising, minimalist Royal Opera production of Berg's operatic version.

Now a woman who ought to know better joins the persecution. Composer Olga Neuwirth (second spoiler, if you're really determined to go see her version) has her Lulu shot by ALL the men in her life. But much, much worse, in American Lulu, a 'version' unwisely taken on by director John Fulljames and a committed company now playing at the Young Vic, Neuwirth murders her protagonist with the most inept, incoherent replacement imaginable for the last act Berg, in his mostly compassionate character-study, failed to complete.

Neuwirth (pictured above; happy to give the credit, unsupplied on my source) writes that she finds the opera's ending, as completed by Friederich Cerha and accepted these days by most opera houses, unsatisfactory. But it's Wedekind's as well as Berg's, and of course the symmetry is essential: Lulu's earlier 'victims' all return in different guises as her clients, and Dr Schön, the only man she says she ever loved, is 'Jack'. In any case, about 12 minutes of the music, including the crucial Liebestod, is already there in Berg's Lulu-Suite.

But no, Neuwirth, having slashed and burned the first two acts to virtual incoherence - the audience was already leaving the theatre in droves midway through the performance I saw - writes her own jangly, vocally awkward and high-lying muzak for all but a bar or two of an intolerable last third (we're held captive for an intervalless hour and forty minutes, though that didn't stop the escapees). In her favour are the Morton Wender organ arrangements of the jazz music and the central, palindromic interlude - but the animation narrative to that, by the usually excellent Finn Ross, is incomprehensible. Unfortunately Neuwirth's own libretto for the final scenes is the most risibly pretentious as well as unclear I think I've ever come across; pity Jacqui Dankworth as the Geschwitz character, stuck to a mike and delivering banal platitudes in a last-ditch attempt for her character to make any kind of impact.

The transfer to the deep south in the Fifties and Sixties as well as New York in the Seventies - will she overcome? - would probably work fine in a production of the real opera; here the interpolated Martin Luther King and June Jordan texts say nothing about what kind of character, or idea, Lulu is. Exploited she may have been, but she ends up an unsympathetic bitch caught in nebulous situations. The end is an awful long time in coming, but it can't come too soon.

This is all a terrible shame for a singer who acts her socks off and would clearly make an excellent Lulu in 'proper Berg', American soprano Angel Blue. She's the main reason why I bother to write about a mostly wretched evening at all (she's pictured throughout here by Simon Annand for the Young Vic). Blue's Lulu is various, compelling and - most important - she can deliver all the high-wire, coloratura-y stuff, or at least what's left of it in Neuwirth's disembowelment. I felt deeply sorry for her lying there as rapid exits were made by at  least a quarter of the audience ( I might suggest at least part of this was due to unfamiliarity with Berg's tough musical language, familiar as it is to so many of us now, on the part of Young Vic regulars). She deserves much better and, in any case, her future is bright.

Among the men, the excellent Paul Curievici works hard and convincingly as the Photographer (Berg's Painter, pictured with Blue's Lulu up top), and Robert Winslade Anderson  makes a sleazy and by no means decrepit new character, Clarence, out of Wedekind/Berg's Schigolch. The players of the reduced orchestra - the London Sinfonietta, who ought to be good - lack nuance and phrasing; the volume in the small space is relentless. I won't name the conductor, because I know him and like him. Anyway, I sat with interest through what remained of the Bergian torso (no arms either). Towards the end, though, I and my companion, Alexandra Coghlan who's written a very flavoursome review of the show for The Arts Desk*, were screaming for release.

Let's turn, then, to a happier Muse. Anyone who's been reading this blog for long knows how I worship at the shrine of the unique Anne Schwanewilms. At last, in June, I got to hear her ideal Marschallin in Dresden, and she was back here the Monday before last to give a BBC Lunchtime Recital at the Wigmore Hall. I reviewed it for The Arts Desk, and the Schumann Op. 39 Liederkreis knocked me for six. It's now definitively my favourite of all song-cycles (or song groups, if you prefer). I ordered up the Capriccio CD double quick, and tried to play the Schumann half while attending to administrative stuff a couple of days ago.

It's a measure of how Schwanewilms has blossomed from just an otherworldly-beautiful voice to an utterly compelling interpreter that I couldn't just pay half-attention. Every note, every colour demands full focus. The scary wood and castle narratives are searing and 'Wehmut', which Prokofiev adapted with profound significance in the slow movement of his Seventh Piano Sonata, pierces the soul. For me, this is one of the greatest of all Lieder, and Schwanwilms' performance the track I'd now single out for anyone who wants to understand the art in three minutes.

Many of the Wolf songs on the disc were new to me. How strange, unpredictable and unorthodox many are. I must say I don't find the more anguished ones exactly sympathetic or quite human, with the exception of 'Das verlassene Mägdlein' - ach, the pain our soprano brings to 'Träne auf Träne' - but Schwanewilms makes the most of their oddities. Like Schumann, with the added experience of Wagnerian chromaticism backing him up, Wolf can cloud a happy picture so subtly: 'Im Frühling' is the most complex response to spring I know, and what a great scena this makes for Schwanewilms.

I think I like Wolf best when he gives this mesmerising singer the cue to spin a longer line, as in the harmonic miracles of 'Gesang Weylas' and the bright-to-dark 'Verborgenheit'. At any rate, I feel a Wolf obsession coming on: over to Fischer-Dieskau soonest.

Schwanewilms' perfectly good pianist, Manuel Lange, seems rather too ordinary for her. The partners we've seen her with here - Charles Spencer and now Roger Vignoles - seemed much more like equals in strange adventures. A shame, in the meantime, that there's no complete single Wolf or Schumann song from Schwanewilms on YouTube. What I did find is this interview, introduced in English but not thereafter subtitled. It includes, piecemeal, the performances of Wolf's 'Auf einer Wanderung' and 'Das verlassene Mägdlein'.

And here's some wonderful news: sorry as I am that fine Lieder singer Angelika Kirchschlager has had to withdraw from this coming Thursday's Wigmore recital, it's fabulous that Schwanewilms, with Spencer, will take her place. Not sure how much of the programme I can catch given that I have to be at a short concert to inaugurate the Barbican/Guildhall School of Music and Drama's Milton Court; Debussy, Strauss and Wolf may be casualites, but I'm assuming Wagner's Wesendonck Lieder will be the last songs on the programme, and I wouldn't miss what Schwanewilms makes of them for the world.

Coda should belong to a third soprano of the front rank, gifted Anna Prohaska, singing Lied der Lulu from Berg's suite under Abbado. I was lucky enough to catch this most potent of teams at the Lucerne Easter Festival several years ago, when the orchestra was not the Berlin Phil, as here, but the Simón Bolívar [no longer] Youth Orchestra. It was their first acquaintance with Berg, and could the touch have been more incandescent than Abbado's? He creates his sound no matter who he conducts. So it was with the Venezuelans, and so it is here with the Berliners. Text of Lulu's Credo as applied to Doctor Schön follows.

Although for my sake a man may kill himself or kill others, my value still remains what it was. You know the reason why you wanted to be my husband, and I know my reasons for hoping we should be married. You let your best friends be cheated by what you made me, yet you can't consider yourself caught in your own deception. Just as you've given me the evening of your life, so you've had my whole youth in exchange. I've never sought in my life to appear other than the image which has been created of me. And no-one has ever taken me for anything other than what I am.

*Poor Alexandra - what a week she's had of it. Hard to tell which she disliked more, this - probably, given the single star - the Grandage A Midsummer Night's Dream or the oldies' Much Ado About Nothing. Add into the mix Matt Wolf's hilarious review of the film Diana, and it's been a week of serious thumbs-downing on The Arts Desk. Except from me for Mitsuko and young maestro Robin on Thursday.


Catriona said...

Well, yes, my feelings exactly. It was a bit pointless, and I didn't quite see the necessity of Lulu spending almost all her time on stage flaunting her underwear. The point could have been made much more subtly.
At least, however, you saw the video thingy - it didn't work for the performance I saw in Edinburgh. Did I miss anything?

David said...

Only the incomprehensible, as I write above. I like Ross's style, as I did most of the production's visuals, but whatever story was being told, I didn't get it. Was the Geschwitz character gang-raped? There was certainly nothing about changing knickers to catch cholera, nor was it post-explained on stage.

Glyndebourne, I remember, had an excellent black and white film which was very clear. My hero Richard Jones frustrated me for once, at ENO, by having no film at all. Isn't it a shame the opera never reached the stage in Berg's lifetime; the film would probably still be around, like the 78 recording of the 'Tango Angele' for Weill's The Tsar Has His Photograph Taken (which I must be one of the few to have seen, at the Camden Festival).

Anyway, Catriona, get you listening to the divine Anne at once.

Susan Scheid said...

On the Lulu, sounds irredeemably bad, by all accounts. How much better to go straight to Schwanewilms, and particularly as I was looking for something "entirely different" to listen to. And what a bonus that you pointed out the relationship to Prokofiev, fun to play them side by side. I'm looking forward more than ever to the chance to hear her live in November.

BTW, as I suspect you know, Denk has a new CD coming out end of the month, and it's available for a preview listen here:

David said...

Well, Sue, Angel Blue was the glimmer of redemption. Still glad I went to hear her. A shame Schwanewilms' interpretation of 'Wehmut' isn't available on YouTube to put alongside the slow movement of Prokofiev 7 (did I do something similar some time ago? Can't remember). Anyway, there's a German interview - no English subtitles - about the disc which I might put up now.

Roll on Denk. Still need to get hold of his Ligeti/Beethoven.

wanderer said...

I am reminded of a (dreadful) musical we had occasion attend (freebies) where at each of the doors into the theatre boldly stood signs warning there was a 20 minute lock out period. Five minutes in and K leans over to whisper - should have been lock IN.

Lulu is a hard listen, and a mighty directorial challenge to get sympathies somewhere, or anywhere. This wasn't a subscription night was it? Performances which actually drive people out are pretty rare. I recall only one, Xanankis's 'Kraanerg' (Sydney Dance Company), where the issue was simply tympanic torture for those escaping. I actually rather liked it - the universe is torture, especially if getting sucked into a black hole, which is how I recall it, and went twice.

Anyway, the Divine Miss S is on her way. Thanks for the memories (or mammaries, as the Countess didn't ever get to say).

I suppose you've seen the outrageously sexy Ms Garanca by now over at Sue's. Phwaaa.

David said...

No: believe it or not, we don't have subscription series here (or not that I know of). The Young Vic audience is used to either new plays or very innovative productions of classics. It's a very mixed audience, with a large black following - hurrah - and I just think that Berg's musical language was too tough for many (they escaped before Neuwirth's true horrors began). The loud, underphrasing orchestra didn't help.

Well I remember being right in the middle of a row with aisles only at either end at the Lyttleton for Complicite's interminable staging of Out of a House Walked a Man (based on absurdist Russian Daniil Kharms). Two hours and no escape.

What have we left halfway through? As students, a two-man (Derek and Clive, was it) 'comic take' on the Ring which involved using nearly every member of the 12 strong audience. We fled, pursued by company members shouting 'please come back, we need you!' More recently, a deadly combo of Belgian early musicians and bad puppetry in Monteverdi's Return of Ulysses (not my thing at the best of times). Our departure caused many others in the stalls to follow our cue in droves.

Biggest scandal I can remember musically was Xenakis's already 30 year old Pleiades: heavy metal percussion. I loved it, and relished the walkouts, but I think it was making the Prommers seriously deaf. Have a CD of it which I was playing when Ryzsek our curious-about-everything builder popped his head round the door to ask what it was. He loved it too.

You won't regret that Schwanewilms CD. Think of me catching the Wesendoncks on Thursday, if I pedal fast enough over from Milton Court, the new 600 seater concert hall near the Barbican.

Over to Sue for hot Elina (who's being replaced in the Rosenkav Sue's supposed to see by Alice Coote, who I think should make an even better Octavian).

Susan Scheid said...

Leave it to wanderer to skip right down to the Elina hot spot (and it is, it is, he got exactly where), but I hope you both, well, David, I know you will, will also comment on the "main event" in the post, about which wanderer has raised some interesting points. I have some ideas, but will sit on my hands until I see what others may say. (Sadly, we can't make any of the dates on which Coote is singing Der Rosenkav, or I would have exchanged the tix we have already. I have no doubt but that she would be a perfect Octavian.)

Back to one of your main events, David: I have been able to listen side-by-side on Spotify, and it's marvelous to do. Now, I know musicologists in the USSR weren't everybody's favorite, but boy, do I get a lot out of the knowledge you and others impart now. I'm looking forward to getting the CD in my hands (along with Denk's).

David said...

This might sound curmudgeonly of me, but I read your post on Shostakovich 5 and I don't know what to add (though I shall, re-reading carefully). It's the one among the acknowledged greats that's never grabbed me, though I listen with interest and find the context/references fascinating. Of course I know Elina's Carmen well - the very best I've ever seen. I think I have a chunk of her with Alagna from the Met in the final scene way down somewhere.

If you don't get quirky Alice, who do you get? I presume EG has pulled out of all performances.

Interesting reports, BTW, on how the anti-Putin protests went on opening night. It seems Gelb DID deliver what the petitioner wanted. And he wore rainbow braces!

Done your homework as usual, I see. I assume you mean you've ordered up Schwanewilms' disc. That's two I've sold - I claim my Capriccio commission... But I really do think it's one of the greatest Lieder recordings ever.

As for Soviet musicologists - and thanks for the compliment - let's not forget DDS's great friend and polymath Sollertinsky, without whose great love of Mahler (and Bruckner) the symphonies from the Fourth onwards would not have taken the shapes they did.

David Damant said...

Once more I tread with care over ground so fertile with musical knowledge, but several strands come together to remind me of the late Stefan Karpeles, of such happy memory. A Austrian refugee from Hitler, he flew for the RAF in the war and after the liberation of Austria at once flew a plane ( without permission) to Vienna to pick up his beloved fiancee (later wife) who was an opera singer - middle class, spotted by the intendant at a social evening and at once offered Carmen ( "which role?" she asked" Why Carmen of course"), later the Marschallin. After she died, Stefan could speak of her only with tears

Stefan's house in London was full of memorabilia of Richard Strauss, and Father Andrew and I made visits especially when Stefan was dying, when A sang for him - Stefan's knowledge was amazing. When a Hugo Wolf ( what a handsome photo) song was sung, Stefan knew where in the oeuvre it appeared and what the next song was like. A sang (Ich habe genug ) at his funeral. I remember to this day the sound flowing across the cemetery

Susan Scheid said...

Re Der Rosenkav: Marschallin: Martina Serafin,
Octavian: Daniela Sindram. Serafin was the draw, based on her performance in The Ring--EG wasn't in the performance we could get to anyway (she was only booked for 3, I think. I don't know anything about Sindram.) Schwanewilms isn't ordered yet, but will be, along with the new Denk. (Did you see he's received a MacArthur award?) I did see a report on the Met opening program note, but didn't know about the rainbow braces. Nice touch, and, overall, a better result than I expected. I think you overcame your "curmudgeonliness" in high style Over My Way, on which I'll respond in due course . . . and as to Sollertinsky, yes, yes, he must not--and in my next Shos post will not--be forgotten, as you'll see.

Susan Scheid said...

PS: David D's story is beautiful.

David said...

David - I wish you'd introduced me to the late Mr Karpeles. He does indeed sound remarkable. Few know their Wolf that well.

Sue - Serafin was a glamorous Marschallin when I saw Rosenkav in Vienna, with a sound a bit like Crespin. Not seen her since, but she's done a few Toscas at the Royal Opera House. Sindram is a firebrand: an absolutely magnificent Venus in the Proms Tannhauser. Again, that's the only time I've seen her but no doubt about it - top quality. You do get Peter, though, don't you? And the Sophie and conductor?

Our Royal Opera Elektra on Monday was the most gripping I've heard in ages. Pieczonka, the Chrysothemis - now there's a star Marschallin. She's the friend of a friend, who tells me she lives with a very nice woman. Anyway, she's gorgeous.

By the way, I gather the rainbow apparel was 'garters' rather than braces - doesn't that mean suspenders?

Susan Scheid said...

To your first question, YES on Rose and Gardner; the Sophie is Mojca Erdmann. Thrilled to learn about Sindram. Your Elektra sounds fabulous. As to your second question, my fashion knowledge is less than minimal, but when I read braces, I did think suspenders.

Roger Neill said...

Another Schwanewilms sale here, David. I go into a Wolf deep dive every five years or so, and I expect this will provoke a new attack. Always need a broader diet than DFD though!

Roger Neill said...

It's such a shame that Walter Legge, in his Hugo Wolf Society recordings in the 1930s, should have done so much with Elena Gerhardt. She was well past her best and it all seems grossly over-interpreted to me. I have that set on LP and she occupies the first two sides. The remaining twelve sides have a remarkable panoply of great singing.

David said...

Heard Schwanewilms last night in the most astonishing and unusual performance of Wagner's Wesendonck Lieder: I had to pedal like mad from the opening of the Guildhall School's new complex at Milton Court, but it was well worth it (AS's performance briefly described at the end of the Arts Desk piece).

Roger, I know what you mean and I don't have half the knowledge of Wolf Lieder interpretation that you do. Frankly I reckon it's a pity Walter Legge worked with a certain not so heilige Elisabeth, who would surely not have had the career she did - and in fact didn't have on the continent - without his over-promotion. Ask Charles Spencer, Schwanewilms' pianist last night, with whom I remember conversing 20 or more years ago about the undeserved reputation of ES.

Roger Neill said...

Gerhardt was thought by the Legge generation to be the epitome of the lieder singer. Schwarzkopf seems to me to have in several ways followed her mannerisms, encouraged presumably by Legge. She's far better in her wartime recordings with Raucheisen - ie before she met Legge IMO.

David said...

I don't know Schwarzkopf's wartime recordings (isn't Raucheisen the pianist on that most amazing of all Winterreises, Peter Anders'?) I do know her Sophie in a 1947 Presentation of the Rose, and that's the only one of her recordings I can stomach. Seems to me she never had a beautiful voice, and the support is odd.

David Damant said...

Elizabeth Schwarzkopf on Desert Island Disks chose seven of her own recordings (the eighth being the overture to Rosenkavalier). Well, why not? Better that the pop stuff we have to suffer on DID nowadays. But if you look for her entry in the DID archive it is not available. Wonder why not.

David said...

To be fair, it's said she didn't understand the premise of the programme and thought you had to choose your own recordings. Whatever the case, many of her more famous recordings - the Four Last Songs with Szell, the Rosenkavalier with Karajan - got in the way of appreciating much better versions (the majority) for decades.

Roger Neill said...

Peter Anders. What a singer. What a musician.

Catriona said...

Picking up two strands, I walked out of a Nottingham Playhouse production of Measure for Measure - a favourite play - some Edinburgh Festivals ago. It seemed to me to be running against the grain of the play, so I went home at the interval.
On the garters, suspenders and braces issue, this is an example of being divided by a common language. Braces are for teeth or for holding up trousers. A garter belt in American English is a suspender belt in British English. In British English, a garter is a band which goes round the leg to hold up stockings - ornamental and frilly for brides, the origin of garter stitch in knitting. In British English, as well as being that which attaches stockings to the belt (or Liberty bodice, for those who remember such articles of torture), suspenders are also those elasticated bands with clips which men wear to hold up their ankle socks in, for example, Brian Rix farces.
You are sorry you asked, now, aren't you, David?

David said...

Not at all, Catriona, though not as excited as fetishists might be...I think it has been confirmed that Gelb was indeed wearing trouser braces and nothing kinky (alas). And that his reply has pacified the petitioner.

That Anders recording, Roger, makes all other Winterreises seem tame, doesn't it, although I know it is unrepeatable. I had special trouble listening to Padmore after it. A certain singer says MP always sounds as if he's had sand kicked in his face. I know what he means, much as I enjoyed his recent Captain Vere.

Susan Scheid said...

Catriona's disquisition on being divided by a common language is hilarious! So, in American English, then, Gelb was indeed wearing suspenders, that is, straps worn over the shoulders to hold up trousers? (Neither of you need to answer this, please know!)

David said...

I'm just doubly confused now, even if I have a clear picture of what he WAS wearing.

Most embarrassing confusion I've had was over the American and GB uses of 'fanny': neither polite, but picture my consternation when in the Auden/Kallman translation of Brecht's text for Weill's Seven Deadly Sins, which we were performing, I stared at our Anna and wondered how she could sing the line 'now she shows off her little round white fanny' - I didn't much experience of what I thought was meant, but I still couldn't imagine it. To save others' confusion, the word was changed weakly to 'body'.

Susan Scheid said...

I had NO idea, even after living with a Brit lo these many years, that the word meant "front bits" in English English (if I even have that right). It's no wonder you couldn't imagine it . . . but why not substitute "bum"?

David said...

One syllable. 'Botty' or 'bottom' would have done.

Ah well, germane to Lulu's world, I guess. Did you know that Wedekind originally had Geschwitz expiring to an unfinished 'oh shit', or so they think. What a word to end a play trying to avoid a laugh from the audience...

If you ain't seen the proper Lulu, you're in for quite an experience. Student of mine last night pointed out that the young crowd who frequents the Young Vic needed more pointers as how to handle such music - pre performance talks should have been essential. They WANTED to know more, she said.

Roger Neill said...

Now here's a funny thing, David. Anders and Schwarzkopf were both pupils of Lula Mysz-Gmeiner (1876-1948), although I don't think the latter got on with her. LMG was a contralto admired by Brahms.
Anders is a constant presence through the Raucheisen big box (66 CDs recorded in Berlin mostly in the latter years of the war). He was as famous in opera and operetta as in lieder. His Winterreise is the business indeed.

David said...

Anders was a fabulous Strauss interpreter, too. I need to hear more. 66 CDs, though, heck: a lifetime is not enough to listen, let alone to have recorded so iron smoker indeed.